It does not happen every day, to be able to interview a world-class musician such as Atma Anur. The British drummer who holds participation in more than one hundred and forty records, a real war machine that moves nimbly between Latin rhythms, jazz, hip hop, rock and metal. One of the heroes of the extraordinary season of Mike Varney’s Shrapnel Records, a breeding ground of talented guitarists from the 80’s to present day. Atma proves to be a musician that is open to ever more collaborations, one that is always evolving, passionate and generous, even for something like this interview. He has also worked in recent years with some interesting Italian guitarists like Steve Saluto, Marco Sfogli and Luca Zamberlin. I purposely left out any reference to his history and his records, I mention the names of Richie Kotzen and Billy Sheehan, just to give you some clues …
1) Atma, tell us how it was in NYC during the 70’s, both musically and personally. What are your memories of the “vibrations” of those days?
NYC is a magical place in general. Creativity and Passion are everywhere you look. I remember feeling like anything was possible, and I was constantly excited about life. I have rarely had that kind of feeling anywhere else in the world.
The best part about spending my teen years there would be the musical and cultural diversity that is a normal everyday part of living in NYC. I had the chance to see and listen to all kinds of music and dance, performed by the original artists, all the time. Latin, Jazz, Funk, Rock, African, Indian and much, much more.
I also began my formal studies there, attending the Manhattan School of Music and also frequenting the Lincoln Centre Music library.
Playing on the streets of mid-town and down-town Manhattan in different band configurations (from duets to 6-piece Jazz groups) was also a huge learning experience for me in the late 70’s. I met and jammed with some of the best musicians I have ever encountered in that situation.
2) In 1981 you moved to San Francisco. What differences did you find living on the West Coast?
The West Coast of the States is a very beautiful place. Lots of culture and music; and the music industry is quite alive there as well. The people seem to have a different approach to art and music than those on the East Coast though. Both coasts have a lot to offer (as does the whole United States) in terms of being an artist.
I was very fortunate to make some important connections during my years living there. I had the biggest gigs of my career on the West Coast so far. I also made many dear life-long friends living there.
3) After playing and studying jazz for many years, you worked with Mike Varney, and his team of virtuoso guitarists, for Shrapnel Records. How did that situation come about, and how would you evaluate that experience?
I began as a rock player. My first experience in listening and trying to play drums was with the music of artists like Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones and Deep Purple (although my earliest memories of hearing music were Reggae and Soul music). Then I went on to learning the music of artists like Yes, Genesis, ELP and other popular Prog bands of those days.
I got more into Jazz after hearing Tony Williams, Chick Corea and also The Mahavishnu Orchestra. That led me to listening to Miles Davis and John Coltrane… and the rest is history!
I realized that I wanted to do this (drumming) professionally and needed to really study music. That is when I started looking at music colleges and got my first private teacher. I began playing in church at a young age and also had my first band in NY at about 12 years old.
I first met Mike Varney through my relationship with Peter Marrino (the original Cacophony singer), Peter introduced me to Mike, in 1885, (I had been playing lots of musical styles in many bands between 81 and that point) when he asked me to join his band Lemans, (which was at that time signed to Columbia Records), Mike was their manager.
Soon after that meeting Mike told me about his then new project called Shrapnel Records, and that he wanted to introduce me to some artists he was thinking about doing something with.
As an evaluation of the situation I would say that life is quite complex and that things happen as they are supposed to happen. I am very thankful for all that has happened in my life. Living in NYC and San Francisco were a big part of my musical and personal development.
4) Who is the guitar player that impressed you the most during that period?
For me Tony MacAlpine is the most impressive musician I met through my relationship with Shrapnel Records. That is not to say that people like Jason Becker or Richie Kotzen are any less talented (everyone that Mike Varney chooses to work with is an exceptional talent)… but you asked about who impressed me THE MOST.
Tony is an all round exceptional musician, he sings, writes and plays many instruments on the highest possible level… I only know a handful of others in that category.
5) Here I have the first album from Greg Howe. I was only 16 when it was released, but I loved that album! You were the drummer, what do you remember about the recordings, and about Greg and the amazing Billy Sheehan?
The situations with those Shrapnel recordings were all just about the same. Very creative and very exciting. Mike is a true visionary and always brought the best out of the people he enlisted to make those records. Mike always worked very fast, and gave us all a short time to come up with the most killer music we had in us at the time.
Meeting Greg was excellent, he is a calm but intense musician with a huge musical vocabulary. His groove and approach to what he is doing on the guitar is really original and inspiring. Greg is simply excellent.
Billy is an awesome person and a killer musician. I learned a lot from the time we spent together about “sitting” in a phat rock groove. I was most inspired by Billy’s tone, and his ability to play chops that retained the groove that they were a part of. That is an unusual thing for many rock oriented bass players. Both Greg and Billy are very supportive musicians, that makes creativity the next natural step. They both have a very natural approach to time, I mean odd meters and so on. That record was great fun to make.
6) I’m a great fan of Ritchie Kotzen’s “Mother Head’s Family Reunion” A wonderful album you made with him. What a fantastic record, isn’t it?
I made quite a few records with Richie and did loads of playing, jamming, writing, rehearsing, touring… the whole deal. Richie Kotzen was the person that I met through Mike Varney that I had the longest and most fruitful relationship with.
The Mother Head’s time was quite magical and lots of fun. Yes that record was awesome… but so are all the others we did together. We also toured with that band and that music quite a bit. The experience of making that CD was quite special also. We had a good budget from Geffen Records so we recorded tracks in quite a few of L.A.’s best recording studios… another great learning experience. Richie is an especially talented person and a good friend.
7) I have a good friend in Krakow, Poland where you live now. What can you tell us about the music scene in Krakow?
The Polish music scene is just as different to the music scene in the States as is the cultural difference between Poland and The United States. Although the same basic genres of music are present there, the approach and emphasis are completely different.
There is a great love of Jazz in Poland, and some great Jazz clubs and music schools in Krakow it self. Krakow is also a very beautiful European city with a great cultural history, a very nice city to live in.
There are many excellent musicians of all kinds in Poland., I have played with many on tour and also taught at music schools and given quite a few clinics there. My focus remains mostly outside of that scene however.
8) Do you have any special preparation before you perform? Or any particular method to help your concentration? Or do you follow the flow of your instincts and feelings at the time?
I am a believer in good preparation, and lots of study and practice. One needs to have goals and work toward making them reality… both musically and personally.
As for shows I want to know the music well, know my part in making it a worthwhile experience for the listener, and bring something new and exciting to the moment.
Concentration is something that comes from focus and practice. It can be acquired and increased through practice.
Being in the moment is just as important as preparation in order to be true to the music. Instincts are gained with experience, both in playing and in listening.
9) I know you’ve worked with Luke Zamberlin , Italian guitarist of great talent. How did you get to work in Italy? It seems to me that it’s been a lot of fun playing and recording together. Italy is not a bad place to be, do you agree with me?
Yes I do agree. I first played and recorded in Italy with Steve Saluto. We did 2 CDs together, with Marco Mendoza, Doug Wimbish and some other well known musicians. I was in Italy recording something for Steve with Piero Trevisan on one occasion, and after one of our sessions we went to a jam, and that is when I met Luca Zamberlin.
Luca and I stayed in contact and have been doing things on and off ever since. So far I have met some wonderful people and killer musicians in Italy (I should mention Marco Sfogli). I hope to continue to play there… and I love the food!
10) You’ have been a professional musician for a long time, and you have recorded an impressive number of albums, 142 by now. What prompted you to become a musician in the beginning? What were your motivations and your feelings about that?
I believe that music chooses those that are destined to express it. I’ve heard stories from my parents about my beating a small toy drum and dancing around from when I was 2 years old. They thought it was strange but also kind of wonderful.
As things progressed I found myself feeling a sense of personal responsibility toward music. It occurred to me that I had been given a gift and was supposed to put it to use. So I try to live up to the responsibility that music has chosen me to fulfil.
11) A typical but still important question, What is the most important advice for a drummer? Advice you would give to a beginner or a professional.
The most important single piece of advice I would give a drummer is that the MELODY is THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF THE MUSIC.
With that in mind, learn your instrument and play musically with all your heart… all of the time.
12) I’m a bass player and a great lover of music of any kind. From heavy rock to David Bowie, from the amazing Bill Evans to Miles Davis (one of my faves is the In a Silent Way album). So, please suggest three records to learn something from, as a musician as well as a listener.
Impressions by John Coltrane
The Inner Mounting Flame by The Mahavishnu Orchestra
Sex Machine by James Brown
There are so many other records that I would suggest to anyone for listening, if one is looking for musical enlightenment and enjoyment… but you asked for only 3.
You’re right! I missed a great opportunity, next time I’ll be more careful. Thank so much for your kindness and availability, Atma. See you in Venice, I know for sure you’ll come back!
Check out Atma’s website for even more info, updates, music, videos and photos! http://www.atmaanur.com
Interview published in Italian on Gene Master Volume on May 12th, 2014.